The world of projects can be stressful. There are tight deadlines, huge work pressures, unrelenting expectations and conflict that feels like the weight of the world on your shoulders. We are humans. We’re not immune to stress. And sometimes, project roles can feel isolated which can make stress worse.
Whether it’s workplace challenges getting you down or something going on at home, stress can prevent you from being your best self at the office. As a team leader on a project, you might spot behaviour that is out of character from someone one your team.
This article is about three ways that you can step in and check that things are OK. However, it’s worth saying that I’m not a medical practitioner and neither (most likely) are you. It’s not always easy to reach out to someone at work when you have a professional relationship with them, but when their behaviour starts affecting their ability to deliver on their project tasks, it’s worth making the first move to see if there is something you can do to support them.
1. Have a Chat
The first thing to do is talk to them. Perhaps they are having a hard time. All they need might be someone to listen to the challenges they are having with their workload or a particularly stressful situation on a different project.
You can listen to them, and you might be surprised at how much you could do to help. For example, perhaps they are out of their depth with a new project management software tool. They might be unclear on their responsibilities at work and are feeling like they have imposter syndrome. You may be able to offer them some coaching or training (from yourself or from other people, drawing on your HR team) to help them develop their skills in an appropriate area.
If they aren’t keen to chat to you, they might be prepared to discuss their challenges with someone else. Don’t push it, if you sense they aren’t interested in sharing their thoughts with you. Instead, encourage them to talk to HR, their line manager or another trusted colleague.
2. Talk About Performance
Beyond a general chat about what might be bothering them, the next step is to get more specific. Talk about the areas you have seen them performing differently. Perhaps they are slower at completing tasks than normal, or their hours of work have changed and that’s affecting the team. Use specific examples to point out what you’ve noticed and ask what has prompted the change.
This can be a useful way of encouraging someone to explain the background to a change of behaviour. When you know the root cause, you can more easily understand and support them. Think about what targeted support would best work – discuss this together and come up with a plan. Involve the wider team, or communicate what has changed and why, although be conscious of sharing too much detail and only pass on information that your colleague has given you permission to share.
If necessary, involve their line manager in your discussions. I think it’s better to try to talk to them first about their work on the project, and only involve their manager if they agree to take the discussion further.
3. Arrange Support
Talking is a great step forward in helping someone out at work. But as project managers we tend to be action-orientated and it’s important to offer some constructive and specific actionable help too, if you can.
That could be anything from formal training to informal mentoring, to a change in role (with the support of their line manager if that isn’t you). There are plenty of thing that you can influence as a project manager. For example:
- Switching around task allocations so they are working on more appropriate activities
- Changing the schedule so that they have longer to complete tasks (and less pressure to hit dates)
- Changing the responsibilities on a project so they are in a role they feel more comfortable with
- Providing checking and assurance – this can be helpful for people suffering a loss of confidence for whatever reason, as it may help them feel that their work is still of good quality (if they want this as a solution)
- Making sure they leave on time so they improve their work/life balance
- Buddying up resources for certain tasks so they work with a colleague.
These are all short-term suggestions for someone who might be going through a rough patch at work but who will soon be back to their normal self. Everyday stress affects us all and is normally something we can manage, with a few adjustments and a bit of consideration from colleagues.
However, some issues are more than that, and if you suspect or find out that your colleague is suffering from a medical condition, you may want to work with HR and the individual to put other plans in place that better support their ability to work, in conjunction with their medical team. That’s not something I can advise on in this article, and will most likely be led by their line manager.
In summary, look out for your team members, as you would do your friends and family. We spend a lot of time at work, and it’s important that work is a safe place to be. Treat your project team members as you would wish to be treated yourself and make work manageable and enjoyable for everyone.
This article was written by Elizabeth Harrin.
Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work," and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.